Daniel Nichanian discusses the national importance of local reporting and local elections on justice reform, how the financial challenges of local journalism play into this, and what he’s seeing across the country now as voters make choices about electing local justice leaders.
While federal criminal justice policy gets a lot of attention, arguably the most important reforms are occurring in local jurisdictions. And many of those efforts are led by elected local justice leaders – sheriffs, DAs and prosecutors – or are being advanced through local ballot measures. These thousands of crucial elections, however, aren’t getting much attention in the national press; even local press may pay only the most cursory attention, though the ramifications for local and national justice reform may be immense.
Journalist and editor Daniel Nichanian has been focused on these races and issues his whole career. Formerly at The Appeal, and now launching his own digital magazine, Bolts, his focus on reporting local justice issues and elections gives important insights into the sometimes hidden, yet transformational work happening throughout the US.
Daniel Nichanian is the editor-in-chief and founder of Bolts, a digital publication launched in February 2022 that covers the nuts and bolts of political power and political change, from the local up. He is a writer and journalist who works on criminal justice, voting rights, local politics, and political theory.
Nichanian completed a PhD in political theory in 2016 at the University of Chicago, and later worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. He is also a former editor at The Appeal. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, FiveThirtyEight, Democracy, Philosophy & Rhetoric, Syndicate Theology, New York Magazine, Vox, and more.
Shades of Freedom
Local Justice Journalism
Guest: Daniel Nichanian
June 13, 2022
Copyright 2022 Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative
Welcome to Shades of Freedom from the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. Be sure to never miss an episode by subscribing to Shades of Freedom on your favorite podcast app. This episode's guest is Daniel Nichanian editor-in-chief and founder of the digital magazine Bolts.
Daniel Nichanian: (00:21)
In the media that covers electoral politics there's a kind of convention that you take the rules of the game at face value. And you're like, okay, who is going to win within the rules of the game? But when the rules of the game, like in Florida, involve a poll tax, or in Tennessee involve one in five Black residents not being allowed to vote, it demands a different sort of thinking of how we're going to talk about these elections that do matter.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood: (00:53)
Welcome to Shades of Freedom. I'm your host Douglas Wood, Director of the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. Today's guest is Daniel Nichanian. Daniel is editor and founder of Bolts, a digital publication that covers the nuts and bolts of power and political change from the local level up with a focus on criminal justice and voting rights. Daniel is a journalist whose writing, in his words, "works to shed light on the political and ideological conflicts that shape local criminal legal systems." From 2018 to June, 2021, Daniel was the founding editor and editorial director of the Appeal Political Report. His pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Vox, and many more publications. He received a PhD in Political Theory from the University of Chicago and undergraduate degrees in Philosophy and Political Science from Yale. It's an honor to have him on our show today. Daniel, welcome to Shades of Freedom.
Daniel Nichanian: (01:50)
It's great to join you. Thank you for having me.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood: (01:53)
Daniel, how did you find your way into political journalism and specifically journalism on criminal justice?
Daniel Nichanian: (01:59)
I was writing about American elections and American politics in college or after college in my first job in journalism, and then really stopped all that and went into academia as you mentioned and was doing a PhD in political theory. And that was very much about thinking about some of these questions and movement politics, and defiance towards institutional work and trying to participate in government. And part of that involved, obviously thinking about racial justice issues in the US and voting rights issues and specifically voting rights for people with criminal convictions and some of the history of that. And was writing about that and obviously was interested in the criminal justice system already, and continued writing more about criminal justice. And then when I wanted to find a way out of academia back in 2018, started to work at The Appeal and really made this more of a regular beat to think about some of these institutions that we're talking about.
Daniel Nichanian: (03:10)
And I think coming at it from a place where I really cared about institutional change and avenues of power, but also realizing that it was very hard to conceptualize that when it came to criminal justice, because there isn't even really a place to start to think about it. I guess I wanted to know more about what was going on. This was the Chicago DA election moment, the Krasner election, but it was just very hard to think about what was happening elsewhere. Because there just wasn't that much coverage. It wasn't that much attention. And just starting to build a platform where we can think about that more systematically was the initial effort into frankly also realizing that these are similar issues that are happening on other matters. I think the theory of it for me started on criminal justice, but then the underlying idea that there's a massive issue in how we think about local institutions applies to housing or immigration or transit and so on. So that's how I got to Bolts.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood: (04:09)
Let's jump right into Bolts. Your about page says of Bolts and I quote, “Bolts is a digital magazine that covers the nuts and bolts of power and political change from the local up. We report on the local elections and obscure institutions that shape public policy, but are dangerously overlooked and the grassroots movements that are targeting them.” Why focus on local elections and overlooked institutions that shape public policy?
Daniel Nichanian: (04:37)
Yeah. I think for many people who probably are going to hear this podcast who care about these issues that we are going to talk about and millions of Americans, there's often a reflex to look at Washington DC. There's a reflex to look at the federal government and in many ways it's very justified and there's no argument here that the federal government doesn't matter or that one single voting rights bill wouldn't make a humongous difference for so many people across the country. But what ends up really being overlooked, underappreciated, under theorized often to use a more theoretical word, is all the levers and levels of power and authority that exist in this country that are often literally underused in the sense that no one is running for them. No one has a platform them for them, no one has a theory of how they can be participating in change, in radical change, in incremental change or whatnot.
Daniel Nichanian: (05:38)
And I think anyone who cares about criminal justice, criminal justice policy, I think really understands that much more than I think on many other issues just because the state and local institutions of criminal justice are so important compared to the federal government's role or the role of state prisons. The size of state prisons and local jails compared to federal prisons. But I think there's a new issue there that emerges from the fact that there are 3000 counties, right? And I think a lot of people have heard of San Francisco's DA who's up for a recall a few days from when we are recording this conversation.
Daniel Nichanian: (06:15)
But there are literally hundreds of other prosecutors, many other offices that are impacting people's lives so hugely. And you can make this same analysis on other issues like voting rights, civil rights, and frankly anything. And I think what we're very excited to do at Bolts is address that, give people a place to come to think about these institutions and what is being done with them. And also start having resources, databases that can inform them of who has the power to do what and what they're doing with it.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood: (06:48)
When I was at the Ford Foundation, we recognized a need to invest in the civic infrastructure of institutions and underserved parts of the country. Can you say more about the challenges around the dearth of public resources supporting local institutions, which you just referred to?
Daniel Nichanian: (07:02)
Yeah. I think when I try to talk about this, it sounds almost weird or silly because the level of informational gap is so basic that when you say the things that we don't even have information about, when we try to even think about this, it sounds like you're making it up. Like the fact, if someone were to someone asks, when are the DA's of New York elected? In case they want to think about it or they want to think about who should run or just the platforms or what questions to ask of... Like the type of questions we know to think about in other offices, there is no centralized database. There is nowhere to look to even start knowing. When I was trying to figure out a few years ago, who was even literally running for a prosecutor in New York, some county offices were asking for freedom of information requests just to literally know who had filed to office after final event.
Daniel Nichanian: (07:55)
There's almost an absurd... It's a feature, not a bug in a way where the ability to follow local policies and local institutions is made very difficult in some places, much more than others. And that prevents the ability to engage, to understand the powers of these people, to understand what sort of questions to ask. Obviously a related issue in many places is that local news is in grave difficulty, right? Again, that is very, very, very different from place to place. And a lot of places there are great media organization doing a lot of great work, or don't have enough resources to do as much as they could. And that's all very important, especially when you consider that there's a tradition that prosecutors, sheriffs, local officials that have the power on these issues like to act like they don't have any political role or they don't make policy. They like to act that they're just applying the law.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood: (08:55)
I referred to this earlier, but what do you mean when you refer to the grassroot movements that are targeting local institutions?
Daniel Nichanian: (09:02)
I think there's always a lot of civil rights movements, movements around criminal justice in the US. I think what has been interesting to follow, obviously over the past six, seven years is new forms of institutional engagement on their part of thinking about prosecutors in particular, but also mayors, et cetera differently. That itself comes with a certain ambivalence which is also very interesting to think about and talk about. But there are new questions being raised and there are new forms of pressure that have also become much more visible and much more mainstream and are now occasioning new forms of blow back on the part of law enforcement lobbies and on the part of centrist democrats and conservatives.
Daniel Nichanian: (09:50)
And I think we are really seeing that. Again, I'm going to refer to something that's happening a few days from when we're recording, but there's so much new visibility in some ways in California, for instance, around jail conditions as part of what people are talking about in local elections, it hasn't broken through necessarily even in newspapers. But I think the fact that the institutional rhythms and policy questions are opportunities to inject some of these very, very important life and death questions into the political conversation, is coming to fruition increasingly.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood: (10:26)
And what do you hope to accomplish through the publication of Bolts?
Daniel Nichanian: (10:29)
Well, I think first and foremost, the informational void that I've been describing weakens engagement and civic engagement broadly, and specifically also among people who do want institutional change, right? Including fairly strong institutional change and being able to both be a place that injects some of these issues in the conversation. And I think really translates the big picture thoughts, the big picture awareness people have on the importance of local institutions into the actual spaces where these movements are happening and the demands are happening. I think that translation is usually what's missing and the tools to do to that translation as well, by which I mean, you can be aware. To take an example, maybe step away from criminal justice for a second, because that is what comes to mind. There's increasing attention, increasing awareness, rather that there's a threat of election subversion in the US, right.
Daniel Nichanian: (11:26)
That comes from state and local institutions running elections and Donald Trump's effort to take over some of these offices. There's a lot of attention that there's a lot of, very big picture articles in the press nationally that are very good, kind of pose that question, pose that challenge. A lot of people are very agitated by it. That doesn't mean you then know we're out of threats. What is the power of the Michigan secretary of state versus Ohio's? Who's running? What might they do? What are the county clerks that are doing X or Y? What's the difference in the system in Arizona or Michigan? There's a lot of work of translation to be done there, both in terms of the reporting and information, but also in terms of just having the information.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood: (12:09)
So building on that, a related question. In addition to criminal justice, I know that voting right is a priority for your work with Bolts. Can you say more about what you see as the intersection with both particularly in the context of the political system being used to criminalize access to democracy?
Daniel Nichanian: (12:29)
Yeah, I think, we don't have to be naive and think that the criminalization of democracy started yesterday. Obviously it's a very, very long process that dates as long as people wanted to exclude Black Americans from the ballot. But it is also true that in recent years, there's an increasingly sort of template of bills that are being passed in a lot of states that are creating new criminal charges and are trying to bring the criminal legal system and prosecutors and police and law enforcement to bear in new ways, on all sorts of practices that really are at the core of how we engage elections and more broadly, protests and democracy. This has a connection to the environmental protests and the pipeline protests in a lot of states where a lot of Republicans started passing laws to criminalize certain forms of protests.
Daniel Nichanian: (13:22)
It has obviously also applied in a lot of responses to BLM in 2020, and now as well in the response to the false claims of fraud after the 2020 presidential election. There are offices being created to police elections, to prosecute elections and no matter the size of these offices, the intimidation factor is obviously extremely important. That is also a very common tool in American history. And we are seeing that, we are seeing very high profile cases of typically Black Americans that are being prosecuted for a voting error, ending up with years in prison for a voting error. And as the media, it's a bit of a tricky situation because on the one hand you don't want to act like that's not happening because it's such egregious cases with people being put in prison for years over a voting error.
Daniel Nichanian: (14:14)
On the other hand, part of the rationale of that sort of prosecution is the intimidation factor. And obviously when that gets more attention, that obviously plays up the potential reactions people have when they see the news and they think about, wait, am I able to vote? What happens if I make a mistake? It also opens major questions of what it means to cover electoral politics in a situation of mass exclusion and of criminalization. I think the media that covers electoral politics, there's a convention that you take the rules of the game at face value. And you're like, okay, who is going to win within the rules of the game? But when the rules of the game like in Florida involve a poll tax or in Tennessee involve one in five Black residents not being allowed to vote, it demands a different sort of thinking of how we're going to talk about these elections that do matter, or these institutional spaces that, like, who has the seats of power obviously is very important. But, the rules of the game are themselves skewed and that is a problem with how we cover these spaces usually. One interesting example right now, on criminal justice… a year ago, around this time, every national publication went to Philadelphia and ran an article about how Larry Krasner's reelection race is a test for criminal justice reform, Larry Krasner, being the DA of Philadelphia, who's one of the better known reform DAs in the country. And, there was so much focus as that as a big test, then Krasner won very easily.
Daniel Nichanian: (15:55)
I guess we didn't really hear much about Krasner again. Now the same thing is happening with Chesa Boudin in San Francisco. I have no particular inside knowledge, but the polls that are out there indicate that he will lose, which is obviously extremely important and will have very important consequences for San Francisco and the country. But there is the same decision that this is the one race that everyone's going to talk about. And then everyone's going to obviously draw a lot of lessons from it, right? The fact that there's so many other elections happening in Iowa on the same day, in California, all around the state, that might have different lessons or not is not going to registered. It's going to be that one election everyone has chosen to go after is going to set the tone for national conversations on criminal justice reform.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood: (16:40)
So what do you think is going to be the backlash? If you see more of these progressive DAs, either losing elections or having recall elections? What do you think is going to be the backlash in the country around discussions on national criminal justice reform efforts?
Daniel Nichanian: (16:57)
I think we're already in the blow back, right? We're already living it certainly at the level of national politics. I think we're obviously a very far cry away from where the national federal, maybe conversation was a year ago or year and a half ago. At the local level, I guess what I'm trying to think about is how to resist a quick, easy or overarching take away, because I think we are used to a seesawing nature of what side wins elections or who has the upper hand at the last moment because there's a lot of people at the local level that are doing the work, that are making decisions based on harm or reduction strategies often about whether it is worth thinking about a local election as part of their strategies or not.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood: (17:50)
What do you see as the interplay between local justice reforms and national reforms being debated right now and how are they interconnected?
Daniel Nichanian: (17:59)
If by national reform, we mean things that are being discussed maybe at the federal level, rather than things that are being proposed in a number of places. And because that's a different dynamic. One thing that really strikes me is that the audiences of the debates happening at these different levels are so different. The audience that people who want to pass municipal change have to convince or are talking to when, in the course of their advocacy or protest or organizing versus the type of audiences that the decision makers at the federal level are thinking about and are trying to win over or not antagonize are just so different that it creates I think a very large gap between those conversations, but also, I think there's a... You often hear in federal conversations commentators perhaps with good reason, be asking about the effects of emphasizing criminal justice reform or incarceration issues or the police, obviously on the fate of Democratic candidates in rural areas or in places that Democrats have to win for federal power.
Daniel Nichanian: (19:19)
That is not necessarily a concern that the activists who are asking for change in Philly or LA or San Francisco should care about or in any case will care about in the same way. And so that I think gets to what I was saying when I was saying that those lessons that will be taken at the federal level and at the state and local level will be very different and probably should be very different in that sense.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood: (19:42)
Can you give us a quick landscaping analysis of the local elections we should be watching in addition to the Boudin recall election? Are there others that would have major implications both at the local and national level that our audience should be aware of and should be following?
Daniel Nichanian: (20:00)
Ooh, there's really so much, there's also a lot of sheriff elections that are playing out in a lot of places. Jail conditions obviously are very interesting. We're also seeing, maybe we haven't we talked about this very much, but immigration enforcement continues to be an interesting fault line in a lot of these local elections and I say continues to because there has been a drop of attention to immigration enforcement at the local level since Donald Trump came out of office. So one question I have for 2022 is whether immigrant rights activists are going to continue being able to draw attention to the role that local sheriffs or mayors or others are playing in collaborating with ICE.
Daniel Nichanian: (20:45)
That's something that actually, that actually was one of the most more successful use of electoral avenues in 2018 and 2020 to oust officials locally who were collaborating with ICE, definitely a very, very large number. And in places like Wake County in North Carolina comes to mind where a Republican sheriff who was ousted over ice collaboration is trying to get his job back and bring back ICE collaboration. It's not necessarily the kind of elections you hear about too much, but they're really so important.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood: (21:15)
We always ask our guests the same final question, which is when you hear the words, Shades of Freedom, what does it mean to you now and into the future?
Daniel Nichanian: (21:26)
Yeah, there's so many places to take that question. What does come to mind is the idea, the notion of building up and enjoying the power to shape your life and the life of those around you and of your community. And of course the criminal legal system has throughout US history, but as we were discussing also recently, been used to make that ideal, that notion very difficult for a lot of people, especially Black Americans. And that's one reason why I do a fair amount of writing on the question of voting rights for people with criminal convictions, not just because of the actual rights of people to vote, but also because it's symptomatic of the way in which this ideal of the democratic freedom is weakened by the criminal legal system.
Daniel Nichanian: (22:25)
But it's also why I think it's particularly interesting to see the response to that. And this gets to your question about grassroots movements that have been happening to see the visions, the positive visions of change about that system that have been in play, that people are organizing around, including many people who have lost the right to vote, but are continuing to exercise their voices in alternative ways. And, maybe to end on a depressing note rather than a positive one, it's also concerning how much intellectual heft is being deployed on parts of the Right right now to deny ideals of universal empowerment, universal suffrage, to actively argue that some people lack the civic virtue to participate in democracy, to be good citizens, which itself is very racialized discourse.
Daniel Nichanian: (23:23)
We're seeing it and how it's being deployed against the weight of urban areas to vote in the way in which its being deployed, to deny the right to vote to anyone in Washington DC for Congress. So there's really a battle right now, concerningly around the very notion of universal empowerment and democratic freedom, which is entangled in the criminal legal system and also what's happening on voting rights. And yeah, so that's the state of the country right now, I fear.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood: (23:54)
Well, thank you so much, Daniel, it's been a pleasure having you on Shades of Freedom. We wish you all the best in the publication of Bolts. And thank you for encouraging our listeners to pay attention to local elections and voting rights issues going on in the country now. Thank you so much.
Daniel Nichanian: (24:10)
Thank you so much for having me.
Thanks for joining us for Shades of Freedom from the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. We'll be back soon with more thought-provoking guests. So please subscribe on your favorite podcast app, or you can find all of our past episodes by visiting our website at www.aspeninstitute.org/cjri. This podcast was engineered and produced by Natalie Jones with research assistance by Willem Patrick. It was edited by Ken Thompson with production support by Christian Devers and Wanda Mann. CJRI's programs re made possible by support from Arnold Ventures, the Ballmer Group, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, the Ford Foundation and Slack Inc.